I have heard some say of parenthood that if people knew ahead of time what would be involved with raising a child, most would not go through with it. I am beginning to suspect the same can be said of immigration. As a newcomer, I must conform to adult expectations without having been taught gradually, as a child, how everything works. As a result, I don’t know which signs to read as though my life depends on them, and which to ignore. New drivers in the UK are required to place a particular sign on their vehicle: a white field superimposed with a red block-letter “L,” which stands for “learner.” I feel as though I should have one constantly taped to my back.
The direction of traffic, how doors are hinged, and even the way electrical switches turn on or off are all diametrically opposed to what I have come to expect since birth. Yet I must cross the street, open doors, and turn on lights and gadgets dozens of times per day. If I operate unconsciously for even a moment, I get a shock. But this is only the beginning. It gets, as Alice would say, “curiouser and curiouser.”
Because London predates the advent of city planning, it has grown up organically. Instead of the long grids of streets I would use to orient myself in America, short squiggles of road intersect roundabouts at all angles of the clock face. Anyone who has studied the difference between Cartesian and polar coordinate systems, and calculated conversions between the two, can appreciate the difficulty involved. Navigating London, it feels as though my brain is performing these transpositions constantly. Coupled with the lack of filters about what to ignore, my analytical mind quickly becomes exhausted.
The American journalist James Geary described London as “a labyrinth, full of turnings and twistings just like a brain.” I have discovered that it is a right brain. Just a few buildings away from my new office is the site where William Blake was born. He lamented the “chartering” of streets and rivers in London as analogous to Victorian repression, and held up the figure of Newton as representing materialism and science at the expense of his great loves, imagination and art.
He might be happy to see that, in modern London, so much is still subject to interpretation, imagination, fancy, and whim. In an overcrowded city that long predates the automobile, “making do” and “getting on with it” override the authority of pedestrian crossings and painted lines. Because the roads are not aligned with cardinal directions, street corners are a useless marker, and so instead short segments of continuous road are given different names as they go along. This results in a colorful panoply of street names, even when traveling (relatively) straight. One memorizes various sequences of such streets to get from point to point. With names like “Crooked Usage” and “Buttery Mews,” the results of these mnemonic gymnastics can play out with all of the delight of a memorized poem.
And so, even as my logistical circuitry is being continually overloaded, my creativity is being fed by this great-right-brain of a city. My mantra has become: not wrong, just different. Repeating this, I push (not pull) open the door each day, and set out to learn a bit more.